The Architectural Jewels of Rochester, New Hampshire: Appreciating the Urban Landscape

By Michael Behrendt

Editor’s Note

In 2002, Michael Behrendt, Rochester, New Hampshire’s city planner, undertook a series of articles for the Rochester Times on the city’s architecture that continued as a biweekly series of 28 articles, rather than the planned four or five. The book, The Architectural Jewels of Rochester New Hampshire: A History of the Built Environment, was published in October 2009, building on and adding to that original series.

Part I of the book showcases architectural styles, such as Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne; Part II discusses building types, such as log houses, churches, and barns; and Part III explores special elements including cemeteries, signs, and stone walls. Behrendt uses Rochester as a springboard, but the bulk of the architectural styles and building types explored are present everywhere.

The following material includes some adapted excerpts from the book that may be of particular interest to New Hampshire Town and City readers.

The Importance of Good Design

The human habitat is in tatters. We have come to accept a world with unsightly buildings and a diminished public realm as our inevitable fate. We do not believe it can be otherwise, because, as a nation, we have forgotten what grace in the built environment looks like. Yet, in spite of the depredations of modern society, we have an extraordinary patrimony all around to help us relearn. Consider the following excerpt from the inaugural article in the Rochester Times series:

"Rochester has hundreds of historic, architecturally significant, and beautiful buildings. It is easy to miss them. We are diverted as we race down the highway; myriad structures have been altered, often obscuring their noteworthy features; and all too many are now surrounded by incompatible development which distracts from their pedigree. Nonetheless, slow down, look around, look up. Check out the fancy cornices on North Main Street, admire the brickwork on our few remaining mill structures, and impress your friends by pointing out lintels, quoins and lozenges."

Good design matters. Victor Hugo said, "The beautiful is as useful as the useful … and perhaps more so." The character of our surroundings affects us profoundly, in how we relate to our fellow citizens, in the functioning of the economy, in our physical health, and, truly, in our level of happiness.

Government Buildings

Rochester was prosperous in the early decades of the 20th century. One article in 1914 referred to it as a modern city with "broad, shaded streets, handsome residences, an unlimited supply of pure water, scientific sanitation, electric lights, superior railroad and electric car facilities, fine schools and good churches." The community’s pride was reflected in the high-quality government buildings erected at the time.

Rochester City Hall and Opera House. I think that Rochester City Hall, built in 1908, is the city’s finest building. It houses the Rochester Opera House, the city’s most precious jewel. This sublime space is noteworthy for its suspended horseshoe balcony, grand stage arch, murals and delicate stenciling. As lovely as it is, though, the Opera House is more renowned for its engineering.

George Gilman Adams designed seven buildings in northern New England that combined a city hall and an opera house. Five of those, including Rochester’s, incorporated a movable floor system in the opera house (tragically, the other four were lost to fire). The floor functions in an inclined and a level position. It is raised for theatrical and musical productions and lowered for dances, dinners and public meetings and, at one point, for high school basketball games. No other historic theater in the country has an inclining floor system like Rochester’s.

Attendance dropped off and the Opera House closed its doors in 1974, falling into a long slumber. In 1996, newly elected Mayor Harvey Bernier called upon the citizens of Rochester to restore the theater. The floor was broken, the walls and ceiling were damaged from a leaking roof and layers of paint covered the stenciling. Over a million dollars worth of materials, professional services and labor was donated by the community and the Opera House was rejuvenated.

Rochester Public Library. The Rochester Public Library was built in 1905. Andrew Carnegie donated $20,000 for its construction (equivalent to about one-half million dollars today) with his customary stipulation that the town provide the land and at least $2,000 annually for maintenance.

Carnegie (1835-1919) was a poor child when his family emigrated from Scotland, later amassing an estimated half-billion dollars in the steel industry. He dedicated himself to philanthropy, funding more than 1,700 free municipal libraries in the United States and 800 libraries in other English speaking countries. Each of the Carnegie libraries I have seen in pictures is unique—what a magnificent legacy!

This is what a library should look like. The elevated central pavilion (ornamental projecting section of the façade) gives the building a noble presence. It has a profusion of blonde-colored corner quoins (units of stone or brick used to accentuate the corners of a building), contrasting with the red brick. Matching pairs of monolithic (single piece) granite columns rest on tall pedestals that flank the entry. A pair of reclining lions on the cheek blocks (horizontal blocks next to the entry steps) completes the composition.

The first librarian here was the redoubtable Lillian Parshley, who served for forty years until her death in 1945. I am told that she ran a tight ship. In the early years, the library had closed stacks; you had to request a book which the staff would then retrieve. If Ms. Parshley did not think a particular book was appropriate for you, she would simply inform you that it was unavailable.

The library housed a museum which, like many municipal museums, had a collection of eccentric objects, including a dried puffer fish, an Edison phonograph, a meteorite and moccasins purportedly worn by Sitting Bull.

Former Post Office Building. The federal government erected this post office building in 1913. In a misguided, but all too common, decision the post office relocated out of the downtown and into a new structure distinguished for its banality. This building, now the Rochester District Courthouse, is the city’s only example of the stately Beaux Arts style, named for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, where many American architects studied at the end of the 19th century.

Beaux Art is the most monumental architectural style. It was used for significant public buildings such as train stations, art museums and libraries, particularly in cities like New York, Chicago, Washington and St. Louis. Beaux Arts structures were built of marble, granite or limestone, but also of brick as used here, which doesn’t convey the same grandeur.

Nonetheless, this design is effusive, epitomizing the 19th century French feeling of horror vacui, which means "fear of emptiness" or in the case of architecture, "dread of unadorned wall surfaces." Imagine sculpted figures of the Roman gods—Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Mercury, Neptune and Venus—standing on those pedestals above the parapet wall. Now that would be grand!

School Buildings

Most older schools are handsome multi-story red brick structures, reflecting a civic pride. What message does the Spaulding High School building convey to its occupants? It announces that they are valued members of the community and that they are engaged in something important.

The size and location of schools also contribute to the message. Rochester has eight elementary schools and each is a neighborhood-based school. The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s report, Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School; Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl argues that local schools, immersed within neighborhoods, especially older ones, serve as anchors for the community.

There are obstacles to renovation of neighborhood schools. General building codes are oriented primarily toward new construction and when applied rigidly to existing buildings, rehabilitation becomes unduly expensive. Some educators prefer outsized new schools due to economies of scale: they can offer more subjects, bigger ball fields, and more competitive sports teams. However, the National Trust report states that such facilities "shroud young people in a cloak of anonymity." It adds that “smaller schools produce better academic results, lower dropout rates and less school violence."

Walking or biking to school and home again instills a sense of valuable independence in young people. To be sure, if we build large-scale institutions on former farm fields we will need the excessive amount of acreage required under state law to accommodate huge parking lots, since students will now need to drive there.

Spaulding High School. Spaulding High School is the community’s signature building, along with Rochester City Hall. It is rendered in the Georgian Revival style, influenced by Harvard University’s river houses in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Notwithstanding this lineage, the central section and clock tower unmistakably resemble a traditional New England church or meeting house. It is almost perfect, but, unfortunately, I doubt the school district would entertain adding a spire.

Nancy Loud School. The Nancy Loud School is a charming building and one that I would feel content having my child walk to each morning. It has a curious mix of elements, though: an L-shaped structure enveloping a lower section (like a mother lion embracing its cub), narrow clapboards and perfectly proportioned windows that provide a fine texture, two forlorn Palladian window motifs, and that tower getting ready to take off! Nancy Loud, beloved former principal, thought the district was wise to use her full name in its dedication lest the students try to live up to the moniker, "The Loud School."

Gonic School. The Gonic School building, constructed in 1897, has probity. You feel like the structure itself will see through your kid’s malarkey.

Downtown
Oh, a day in the city-square, there is no such pleasure in life!
Robert Browning

Residents savor reminiscing about old Rochester, especially the downtown and its long disappeared businesses and personalities.

An article titled "1914 Rochester Today with Glimpses of its Past" by Adeline Estes Wright testified to the vibrancy of the downtown at that time, and particularly of Hanson Street,

"…almost every kind of business and profession is to be found on this street: livery stable, blacksmith shop, restaurants, provision market, florist, undertaking rooms, bakeries, barber, tailor, harness shops, hardware, furniture, clothing, dry goods, millinery, music and stationery, grocery and fruit stores, pool and billiard rooms, dye house, boot and shoe blacking rooms, photographer’s studio, real estate, dentist, doctor and lawyer’s offices, and the rooms occupied by the Hanson’s American Band."

This is remarkable given that Hanson Street is only one block long!

Prior to World War II, most residents of Rochester lived in compact neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown, or in the outlying villages of East Rochester and Gonic, and walked to meet their daily needs. Striding in the open air with neighbors and fellow citizens reinforced a sense of community.

Most downtowns are the geographic, historic, governmental, commercial and cultural centers of their communities. Yet, they face numerous challenges today: people drive to shopping and other destinations and seek easy parking; businesses prefer the simplicity of new, one-story structures; national chains require larger building footprints that do not fit into smaller buildings on tighter lots; and zoning, building, fire and disability codes make it expensive or even impossible to retrofit older, multi-story buildings or build suitable new ones.

Rochester Main Street. Rochester’s esteemed Main Street program is working to revitalize the central business district. Main Street followed the acronym DOPE: Design – enhancing storefronts, creating agreeable outdoor spaces, preserving architecture; Organization – coordinating the efforts of downtown merchants and property owners; Promotion – advertising the downtown and holding special events to draw the public; and Economic restructuring – rebalancing the mix of businesses and providing training for merchants. It is a simple, but brilliant formula, though I believe that Rochester Main Street has, understandably, dropped this particular acronym.

Mill Buildings

Industrialization was well underway here by 1806 with six tanneries, two gristmills, a sawmill and a fulling mill (fulling increases the weight of wool by shrinking and beating it). The population surged between 1840 and 1860, when people left the farms and immigrants poured in to work in the expanding woolen mills. More people moved here from 1870 to 1880 when the shoe mills became established.

Imagine what a different place Rochester was a hundred years ago. Shoe and textile mills were humming throughout the city. Men and women worked as weavers, winders, spinners, stitchers, carders, dressers and dyers … not to mention yarn weighers, spool strippers and roving carriers.

Colby Footwear in Gonic was one of the few ladies’ shoe manufacturers that made footwear up to a size 14. Evidently, the shoes were also solidly constructed. From about 1985 to 1995, according to Don Silberstein, who was vice president at the time, Colby’s products were popular with a particular underserved clientele: large transvestites. (According to Mr. Silberstein, this was a small part of their business and not one that the company actually courted.)

Sadly, due to automation and lower wage schedules in the south and overseas, shoe manufacturing jobs in Rochester are all gone. The Roman architect Vitruvius stated in De Architectura, his treatise on architecture, that buildings should have "Commodity, Firmness and Delight." This means the structure should be useful, physically sturdy and beautiful. Although aesthetic considerations were not a priority of their owners, New England’s mill buildings, which stand now as remnants from a vanished way of life, epitomize those qualities.

Clearly, contemporary buildings cannot match the character of our historic architectural jewels. But let us observe and learn from New England’s marvelous heritage. We are still capable of creating memorable places, and the readers of New Hampshire Town and City—municipal staff and those who serve on town councils, planning boards, historic commissions, conservation commissions and school boards—are at the forefront. I encourage readers to help shape the human habitat so that it may be worthy of our affection.

Michael Behrendt, AICP, is chief planner for Rochester, New Hampshire. For more information on this topic, Michael Behrendt can be reached by phone at 603.335.1338 or by e-mail at michael.behrendt@rochesternh.net. The Architectural Jewels of Rochester, New Hampshire: A History of the Built Environment is available at independent booksellers throughout New Hampshire or on amazon.com. To borrow LGC’s copy, call Julie Dietz at 800.852.3358, ext. 100, or reach her by e-mail at jdietz@nhlgc.org.

Book Review

By Julie Dietz

The Architectural Jewels of Rochester New Hampshire: A History of the Built Environment appeals to a much greater audience than merely architecture enthusiasts. History buffs will relish the tales that the buildings have to share about the past, and readers of all backgrounds will enjoy glimpses of the lives of those who live and work within them.

This 188-page paperback is neatly organized into three sections: architectural styles, building types and architectural elements. It begins by sharing the history of the architectural styles displayed in the city, from neoclassical to contemporary. Home styles are explained and photographic examples are provided, along with where they can be found along the streets of Rochester. Particularly intriguing details about government buildings in the city are revealed, including the story of the first librarian to work in the library and the fact that the architect for the city hall did not receive any formal architectural education.

From the warmth-filled anecdotes scattered throughout the book to the thoughtful and comprehensive list of acknowledgements at the end, it is evident on every page that Behrendt has a genuine appreciation for his community. His passion for architecture and sincere respect for its impact on the city leave readers to consider if there’s something more to the buildings that we drive by and walk into on a daily basis.

I would encourage all readers to pick up this lovely tribute to the architectural heritage of Rochester, and challenge them all to see if they can immerse themselves in the rich history and culture of Rochester, photographs and all. Doing so will most likely lead to readers wanting to take a trip to meet these architectural jewels in person.

Julie Dietz is a communications associate with LGC’s Communications Department. To make arrangements to borrow LGC’s copy of The Architectural Jewels of Rochester New Hampshire: A History of the Built Environment, call her at 800.852.3358 or e-mail her at jdietz@nhlgc.org.